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Theatres experiment with 'tweet seats' to attract audiences

By Kelly McWilliams

This story was updated at 2:17 p.m. EST on Wednesday, January 11, 2012, to reflect when the Huntington Theatre Company will begin its Twittermissions.

These days, social media is helping venues sell tickets and impacting what patrons do once they're in their seats.

A number of theatrical venues across the country have been experimenting with "tweet seats," or seats that allow audience members the use of social media during events. The trend started in theaters around 2009 and stands in direct contrast to traditional restrictions against the use of mobile devices during a performance.

But the drive to allow — and even encourage — social media use in-house does not look the same at each venue.

For example, Boston's Huntington Theatre Company this spring plans to offer a "Twittermission," a limited break during which audience members can interact with the artists and other Twitter users. The conversations are posted to an onstage screen during the intermission.

This past fall, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra provided audience members at Cincinnati's Music Hall with real time program notes tweeted from backstage by a staff conductor.

Meanwhile, the Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, CT, recently allowed continuous tweeting throughout a production of "Hello! My Baby." The theater's public relations manager moderated the exchange.

The use of social media at such productions, once frowned upon, now is enjoying strong support among marketers and public relations directors who see it as a gateway to an elusive market: young audiences. The hope is that those comfortable with the technology, on average younger patrons, will get their friends excited about what they are experiencing.

St. Louis' Shakespeare Festival has been offering tweet seats for two years now. "Coast to coast, theaters are experimenting with how to use 'tweet seats' effectively," executive director Rick Dildine recently told USA Today. "The arts are evolving right now, they are participatory. ... Social media is a tool we rely on, and we have been unafraid to experiment with it."

Broadway is not immune to the trend. The producers of the current revival of "Godspell" reportedly considered adding some sort of tweet seat experience in the future.

But tweet seats can have drawbacks. For example, fans can miss important moments in a performance while they are preoccupied with social media.

Not all fans enjoy sitting next to someone pecking away on a keyboard, so venues also are working to carve out specific tweeting sections located either to the side of the theater or in the back row. Some have offered free tweet seats for certain nights to draw users, and others even review the applicants for those seats to ensure they have a large following and have a facility with the technology.

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